Good food is capable of moving diners to tears of joy; bad food is capable of moving diners to tears of a different sort. But there’s surprisingly little information online about how we used to eat. If you’re looking for a medieval Norweigan cookbook, you’re in luck. Fanny Farmer is out there, and The American Matron, or Practical and Scientific Cookery (1851) and Mrs. Goodfellow’s Cookery as It Should Be (1865) are available as scanned pages, though not searchable (or easily downloadable) text. The Feeding America proposal to digitize and make web-accessable a dozen or two of America’s most important cookbooks is apparently waiting on a grant. But how did the average Betty or Joe eat in, say, 1950? The Joy of Cooking has been the definitive American cookbook for seventy years. One of the great things about it is that it changes slowly — the first edition is now back in print if you’re curious about what was considered indispensible advice for newlywed brides in 1931, and they included game recipes well past the time that most Americans were trapping their own food — but that’s just breaking the surface. A few thumbnails and scattered collections pop up here and there on the web, but the mass of cooking information remains offline.
I had assumed that refrigeration, like air conditioning, was a world-shaping technology that’s often overlooked, but Virtual Greenbelt‘s Greenbelt Museum (dedicated to an imagined typical house in Greenbelt, Maryland, in the Thirties or early Forties) has a refrigerator page that suggests most people were used to ice boxes. Maybe the advent of home refrigeration changed lives less than I thought. The USDA offers historical food consumption data — you can verify, for instance, that Americans today eat more chicken than they did in the Sixties. How were these differences reflected in typical Americans’ lives? Reading Martin Gardner’s Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science, I was struck by just how sensible some of the food cultist advice he was describing (eat less red meat and more yogurt!) appeared. Was eating red meat that ingrained into American culture? One of the central theses of Fast Food Nation is that the appearance and spread of McDonald’s and other burger joints (as well as the slow decline in home cookery) had a dramatic and deletorious effect on American eating patterns, and I’m not sure that it’s true. How often did home cooks make things like the simple yet heart-attack-inducing fried salt pork with codfish or the grandiose sweetbreads madeira?
It doesn’t speak to American cuisine, but the Australian diet of the 1950s sounds less than thrilling:
"It was hard going. The food was mainly steak and eggs in the morning, sandwiches in the middle of the day and in the evening there was meat with boiled vegetables. Every vegetable was boiled. There was no taste, nothing at all."…"Pasta did not exist; Spices you could not find for love or money. You wanted olive oil you had to go to the chemist. My parents who were retired used to grow things for me in their garden."